Hail Caesar

Not many private citizens build a career so effectively that their name means 'emperor', 2000 years later, in other people's languages. Yet such is the case with Julius Caesar, the origin of Germany's Kaiser and Russia's Tsar.

Early in his life Caesar (c.100 BC - 44 BC) shows ruthless determination. In 75 BC he is captured by pirates, when sailing to Rhodes to study in a famous school of oratory (an essential skill for Roman politicians). He raises the ransom to secure his freedom, but then also raises a private force to pursue the pirates. He tracks them down and has them crucified. An old anecdote adds that, when still their captive, he has joked that this is what he will do.

From around 65 BC Caesar gets heavily into debt in pursuit of political offices which depend on the popular vote (he particularly pleases the Romans with some unusually lavish gladiatorial shows). At the same time he cultivates the friendship of Crassus, one of the richest men in Rome. Crassus has made his first fortune through the 'proscriptions' of Sulla, of whom he was a close supporter.

Crassus is a jealous enemy of Pompey, another close lieutenant of Sulla. In the intervening years, with his military successes in the east, Pompey has won much greater public esteem than Crassus. Caesar, on good terms with both men, sees advantage in an alliance.

The first triumvirate: 60-53 BC

Pompey, Crassus and Caesar all have grievances against the senate. Caesar, elected consul for the coming year, 59 BC, could normally expect a provincial governorship; instead he has been given the supervision of Italy's forests and cattle trails. Pompey has not been allowed the land which he needs for the disbanded veterans of his army. Crassus has been frustrated in a profitable tax-collecting venture in Asia.

The three men form, in 60 BC, what is now known as the first triumvirate. To cement the link, Pompey marries in 59 Caesar's only child, Julia (though he is older than her father). With equal cynicism, selective rioting by Pompey's veterans is used to persuade the senators to change their minds.

In the circumstances, they do so.

Land is found for the veterans. The business problems of Crassus are resolved. And instead of forests and cattle trails, Caesar finds himself in charge of Rome's two northern provinces - Cisalpine and transalpine Gaul.

Caesar's new provinces provide him with rich opportunities: to recruit soldiers far away from Rome who will be loyal to him alone; to achieve new conquests which will impress the public at home; and to amass large personal funds by looting conquered territories. Meanwhile Pompey stays in Rome, hoping to further his own interests by political means.

These two are now the most powerful men in the republic. As allies they are unbeatable. The underlying question is how long it will be before they emerge, in truer colours, as rivals.

Caesar's years in Gaul: 58-50 BC

Caesar is away from Rome for eight years. During this time he systematically subdues the Celtic tribes in Gaul, making separate alliances with their many independent chieftains. He even adventures beyond the natural boundaries of Gaul - the region framed by the Alps, the Rhine, the Atlantic and the Pyrenees.

In 55 and again in 53 he bridges the Rhine for brief campaigns into Germany. Twice in the same period he crosses the Channel to test the mettle of the Celts in Britain (see Caesar in Britain). According to Plutarch, writing 150 years later, this expedition is the first to prove to certain sceptical scholars in Rome that Britain really exists.

Caesar's campaigns into Germany and Britain suggest that he considers Gaul itself secure. The year 52 BC proves him wrong. The Celts find an inspiring leader in Vercingetorix, a young chieftain of the Averni. His early successes against Roman contingents are in the absence of Caesar, who has been wintering south of the Alps. But the great general's arrival does not make quite the difference to which he has become accustomed.

Caesar is besieging the town of Gergovia when Vercingetorix attacks and routs the Roman forces, killing 700. This is Caesar's first defeat in all his years in Gaul. It prompts many more tribes to come out in support of the rebels.

The next siege in the campaign reverses the situation. Vercingetorix holds the fortress of Alesia. Caesar and his troops, attempting to blockade the garrison, are themselves threatened by a large army of Gauls. But when the Romans win the first major battle between the two sides, the Gauls melt away. To save further lives, Vercingetorix rides out of the town and surrenders - in a dramatic gesture of Celtic chivalry.

He is kept in captivity for six years, until Caesar finds the right moment to lead him through the streets of Rome in a Triumphal parade.

The Gallic War: 52 BC

It is probably in the autumn of 52 BC, after his defeat of Vercingetorix, that Caesar settles down in his winter quarters at Bibracte (to the northwest of modern Lyons) to record for posterity his successes in Gaul over the past six years.

The title he writes at the head of his Papyrus is 'Gaius Julius Caesar's Notes on his Achievements' - though historians will come to know his book simply as The Gallic War. When the work is finished a copy goes off to Rome, where it is probably published during 51. Caesar has been assiduously cultivating support back in the capital, for political struggles to come. The book of his achievements is an important shot in this other campaign (see Caesar and his book).

Caesar and Pompey: 54-48 BC

During the first few years of Caesar's absence from Rome the Triumvirate retains its cohesion. Part of the reason is that the marriage between Pompey and Caesar's daughter proves surprisingly happy. But Julia dies in 54, after giving birth to a daughter. In 53 Crassus is killed campaigning in Asia, at Carrhae. There is little now to mask the inevitable rivalry between Pompey and Caesar.

The senators in Rome, alarmed by Caesar's successes in Gaul, incline towards Pompey as their best protection. In an attempt to clip Caesar's wings, the senate instructs him, in December of the year 50 BC, to give up his command of Gaul and to return to Rome as a private citizen.

When Caesar receives the senate's message, he is in the southern part of his territory, in Cisalpine gaul. The boundary between this province and central Italy is a small river, the Rubicon, flowing east into the Adriatic just north of modern Rimini. Caesar's response is immediate. He marches his army south towards Rome, crossing the river on 10 January 49.

Quite apart from his disregard of the senate's instructions, it is against the law for any commander to bring a Roman army outside the province to which he and it are assigned. In crossing the Rubicon, Caesar consciously and irrevocably launches a civil war.

Pompey escapes the immediate danger by embarking a large army in a fleet of ships and retreating across the Adriatic to Greece. Caesar pursues him there and eventually defeats him at Pharsalus, in the summer of 48 BC.

Pompey flees again, this time to Egypt. But his presence is regarded by a faction in the Ptolemaic court as a likely source of trouble. He is stabbed to death as he steps ashore.

Caesar is only three days behind with his fleet. His arrival no doubt convinces the Egyptians that the murder of Pompey has been a wise precaution. While still at sea off Alexandria, Caesar is welcomed by envoys bearing his rival's head, already embalmed.

Alexandria promises more conventional delights as well. The country's queen, Cleopatra, is twenty-two. Caesar is fifty-two and susceptible (see Caesar and Cleopatra).

Dictator: 48-44 BC

After the victory at Pharsalus, Caesar sends his trusted lieutenant Mark Antony back to Rome. Antony arranges for the senate to declare Caesar a Dictator, with no fixed term.

After a few months of dalliance with Cleopatra, Caesar returns the long way to Rome - up round the coast to Asia Minor, where a rebellious king demands attention. Caesar rapidly defeats him: Veni, vidi, vici he later declares, 'I came, I saw, I conquered'. After a brief visit to Rome he sets off again for a winter campaign in Africa, where there remains strong support for Pompey. By the spring of 46 BC the opposition has been suppressed. Now is the time for the triumph with which victory is traditionally celebrated.

Caesar's triumph in Rome surpasses all others. It is spread over four days, variously depicting his victories in Gaul, Egypt, Asia Minor (accompanied by the triumphal slogan Veni, vidi, vici) and Africa. Each day's procession begins with distinguished prisoners from the campaigns. Vercingetorix the Gaul is one of these. Immediately after his appearance he is taken aside and strangled, having now served his purpose.

Next comes Caesar at the head of his legions (singing cheeky songs about their bald general as they march), followed by the booty of the campaigns, waggon loads of gold. Each soldier is to have a share, according to rank. There is even a hand-out for every spectator lining the route.

As entertainment there are re-enactments of naval battles, a fight to the death between prisoners of war and criminals, an encounter between giraffes and lions. The final event of the triumph is a feast in the streets at 22,000 tables, after which Caesar is escorted to his house by elephants. At the end of each day, more modestly, he has climbed on his knees the steps of the temple of Jupiter to present his laurel crown to the god. The Dictator is firmly in control.

During the next two years he sets about a thorough reform of Rome's administration, including the introduction of a new Calendar. He even plans another campaign of conquest, to extend the empire still further to the east.

But his plans are about to be cut short. Early in 44 BC his friends in the senate pass a resolution that he shall be Dictator for life. There is widespread gossip that he really wishes to be king, ending the long Roman republic tradition. A plot is hatched to cut him down. It involves as many as sixty people, led by Brutus and Cassius. Yet it is successfully kept a secret.

On March 15 (the Ides of March in the Roman Calendar) Caesar is sitting in his seat in the senate when the conspirators strike. More than twenty senators stab him, to share the responsibility. He collapses at the foot of a statue of his old enemy, Pompey, staining it with his blood.

Caesar's death launches a new civil war. Far from strengthening the old traditions, as the conspirators hope, the chain of events leads within twenty years to the end of the Roman republic.

It is replaced by the Roman empire, and in a real sense this is Caesar's empire. The first five emperors, spanning almost 100 years, are all from Caesar's family. The name Caesar becomes, as it will remain, synonymous with emperor.